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Camino Skies

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The idea of pilgrimage, of walking to holy sites in the hope of expiating one’s sins, goes back to the Middle Ages. In one sense it is Catholic in as much as it originates pre-Reformation. It should perhaps have atrophied along with Mummers Plays and Ducking Stools. Therefore, you could say, there is something to be explained about the continuing cult of doing this 450-mile hike across Northern Spain known as the Camino de Santiago (the way of Saint James). Is there something mysterious and personally epiphanic that persists in this ancient custom? Or is it really just a triumph of tourist ‘re-packaging’; inspiration-lite for the modern identity-obsessed, globalised age?

In Fergus Grady and Noel Smythe’s modest documentary such questions are deliberately not delved into. Instead, we follow a few people from New Zealand and other countries who have decided to do the big slog. They are ‘randoms’ in the modern parlance, and the filmmakers sensibly don’t make any great claims for them being especially interesting or unusual. Although some aspects of their histories and biographies are interesting and even moving. People are interesting. The film would just implode if that wasn’t the case. In a way they are ‘everyman’ and that is totally in keeping with the spirit of the enterprise to which so many nameless people have committed themselves over so many centuries.

The problem for the film though is not just in this dilemma (how much do these people want to show of their inner life? How much will be revealed just by the camera crew tagging along?), but also how to make a largely ‘interior’ journey interesting. Otherwise it becomes like a giant reality TV show – Ninja Warrior in the hills – with them as ‘contestants’ to which we cannot but assign tropes or stereotypes; the plucky overweight one, the frail old lady with arthritis, the unbearably mock-profound euro tourist. The focus on these particular people – let’s not call them pilgrims – has to carry the main load. In fact, they are listed in the credits under the cast heading.

As noted, the filmmakers eschew any attempt to situate the Way as a phenomenon, either historically or sociologically or theologically. Nor do they want it to dissolve into some scenery-displaying travel show. The wide shots are actually kept to a minimum. And sweeping, inspiring music is mostly sidelined in favour of a few touches of Spanish folk.

Looked at coldly, this is just 80 minutes of people tramping along a road, but somehow the film works (at least in places) despite itself. Perhaps there is a little bit of pilgrim in all of us.

 
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Trailer: Untouchable

Screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, the documentary about disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein looks appropriately hard-hitting.
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Peter Medak: Exorcising the Ghost of Peter Sellers

The director of The Ruling Class, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The Changeling, The Krays, Let Him Have It, Romeo is Bleeding and various episodes of your favourite TV shows, opens up about his unreleased film starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, and the documentary that he has made about the traumatic experience.
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Victoria Stone: Circle of Life

The wildlife documentary maker has seen her first feature length film, The Elephant Queen, travel the world's biggest film festivals, and will next be available on Apple TV+.
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Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

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Having worked on over a thousand films as a writer, producer or director, French pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché’s achievements are one for the history books.

Yet you will never find her name published in any of them.

Present at the birth of cinema at the turn of the 20th century, Guy-Blaché’s absence from the annals of filmmaking is explored with vivid intrigue in documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.

Be Natural explores how Guy-Blaché became absconded from history through limitations of outdated technology in preserving her films and from her experiences working in an industry riddled with patriarchy and sexism.

Guy-Blaché’s belief that film could be used for more than documenting real-life created the template for all films with a narrative structure that have followed. There is an expression of authenticity in her work that carried through not just in the performances she drew from actors but in her creation of material that bravely addressed at-the-time taboo topics such as inequality. Guy-Blaché’s modesty did not detract from her ingenuity, with the filmmaker helping introduce colour, sound and special effects to cinema during a time when films were dark, silent and static.

Be Natural’s willingness to invite the audience in on the mystery behind Guy-Blaché’s deletion from history is alluring, resulting in a compelling watch that adds appeal to dry subject matter relating to film-preservation and archiving.

Director Pamela B. Green presents Guy-Blaché’s fighting-spirit through archival footage – allowing Guy-Blaché to showcase her intelligent and likeable personality. This is given more credence in recounts of her life through the admiring eyes of her daughter Simone, Francophile narrator Jodie Foster and in interviews with present-day Hollywood filmmakers shocked by Guy-Blaché’s lack of profile.

Green uses motion and graphics (which she has built a career on) throughout Be Natural to create a work that is accessible to the public and not just appealing to academics.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché exists as a testament to an industry clamouring for the equal treatment of women through the gaze of an innovator that fought a large part of her life to be recognised.

 
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Alex Winter: Bitcoin. Activism. Frank Zappa

As the internet breaks with excitement over Bill & Ted Face the Music, one of its stars, Alex Winter (Bill) continues his passion for documentary making and technology, with the latest, Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain, set to premiere in Melbourne this month.
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Mystify: Michael Hutchence

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Melbourne director, Richard Lowenstein, was a creative and social intimate of Australian rock titans INXS and their charismatic frontman, Michael Hutchence. He directed many of their epochal video clips; put together the feature film, Australian Made, in which they appeared; and cast Hutchence in his sole major big screen role in his 1986 feature film, Dogs In Space. Neither a wide eyed fan, nor a hardened outside observer, Lowenstein’s close proximity to INXS and its late singer gives his documentary, Mystify: Michael Hutchence, an extraordinary sense of intimacy.

This is insightful and revealing in ways that most rock docos could only dream of, with Lowenstein eschewing live concert footage and music critic contribution in favour of detail from those who knew Hutchence best: his bandmates, his family, his girlfriends, and his managers. There’s nobody here from Rolling Stone Magazine blathering on about Hutchence’s stage presence, and no well-trawled collection of TV appearances – Mystify: Michael Hutchence takes the most direct route, and goes right to the heart of the matter.

While INXS’ formation and rise to fame is chronicled in succinct, only-as-necessary fashion, the film’s concentration on Hutchence, the human being, is staggering. A hedonistic aesthete with a deep love of the finer things in life, he was also a profoundly sad figure, with a confused family history and a curious shyness. Via audio interviews (this not a “talking heads” style doco, but rather a more impressionistic meld of sound and image) with pretty much anyone that matters in the Hutchence timeline (including Kylie Minogue, Helena Christensen, Michele Bennett, Bono, Chris Murphy, Martha Troup and many more), a fully rounded portrait emerges. The interviewees are affectionate but often brutally honest, and the depiction of the final months of Hutchence’s life – a swirling crush of child custody battles, paparazzi, and a very public dwindling of fame with INXS – is utterly heartbreaking. The lingering effects of a head injury (caused by a coward punch delivered by a cab driver in Europe) that robbed Hutchence of his sense of smell and taste, and brought on fractious changes in his personality, meanwhile, have never been investigated with such power and clarity. And Lowenstein’s position on Hutchence’s much discussed death is refreshing in its directness and lack of speculation.

A finely crafted, expertly assembled tribute delivered with passion, sensitivity and moving accessibility – but one that never devolves into mere hagiography – Mystify: Michael Hutchence is a wrenching detour past the stage swagger that made Hutchence famous, and into the world of pain that made him tick.

 
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Apollo 11

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Some things never date, and some achievements never tarnish. Getting a man to the moon and back again in 1969 is surely the undisputed king of such endeavours. Of course, there was space travel before and after this achievement, but this is the capstone of all of it really.

It was also a fundamental change of human positioning in a way, affording a perspective that had never been so concretely available before. It was that all-at-once view of our tiny, blue, beautiful planet “waltzing in its bowl of cloud” as a poet once wrote. The ship’s view was our view, and everything was different after that. This was beyond ‘historic’ somehow.

2019 marks fifty years since that event, and American producer/director Todd Douglas Miller has scraped together some old and new footage to tell the whole story again. The question, incidentally, as to whether this is America’s achievement or ‘mankind’s’ is somewhat elided here. (it is the Stars and Stripes up there on the non-hoax, real lunar surface, of course).

The film starts, suitably enough, with the stately progress of the unbelievably huge rocket to its launch pad. There is a strange and solemn majesty in that ‘parade’. We sense at once the sheer enormity of the enterprise, partly through the building-sized craft that is needed to do it.

The whole idea of forcing your way out of the atmosphere by the thrust of fuel shooting out of the bottom of the rocket (like a giant firework in one sense) seems at once primitive and awe-inspiring.

Some of the tropes here are reasonably familiar; Mission control – a huge screen-filled control room staffed by hundreds of men (and a very few women) with white shirts and black ties and 1960s haircuts. Then there is the inside-the-space-craft footage with the crackly soundtrack of the astronauts talking in their “eagle has landed” code, and somehow the sense that it all looks held together with gaffer tape and tin foil. Then the galumphing around on the dusty lunar playground.

The arc of the ninety-minute narrative is ‘obvious’, and the documentary doesn’t try to mess with that linearity too much. We launch, we hold our breath, we cheer. Given that we have all seen so many images and interviews over the years, there is no point in trying to deconstruct or re-invent it all. That is the point though. It doesn’t need anything added or taken away, it is still just dumbfounding.